Effective January 4, 2005, cities, towns, villages and counties in Michigan have a new zoning law that allows them to bypass the normal zoning process and enter into an insidious process known as “contract zoning.” Under Chapters 577, 578, and 579 of the Acts of 2004, the state legislature passed a new zoning law, under which: (1) An owner of land may voluntarily offer in writing, and the township may approve, certain use and development of the land as a condition to a rezoning of the land or an amendment to a zoning map. (2) In approving the conditions under subsection (1), the township may establish a time period during which the conditions apply to the land. Except for an extension under subsection (4), if the conditions are not satisfied within the time specified under this subsection, the land shall revert to its former zoning classification.” This new law is being described by Michigan realtors as authorizing “a form of contract zoning.” The new Acts modify the uniformity requirement that has always been a part of Michigan zoning law. This requirement specified that the zoning requirements in any zoning district had to apply equally to all the parcels in the district; there could not be any one parcel that was subject to stricter requirements than all of the other parcels in the district. The only previous exception was for lands developed on a planned unit development (PUD) basis. Under the new laws a zoning applicant may voluntarily offer in writing, and the municipality may agree, that the land proposed for rezoning shall be subject to specific additional land use requirements, as a condition to the rezoning of the land. Once the zoning is approved in accordance with the agreed-upon conditions, the municipality may not later add to the conditions or alter them. According to the Realtors, “It is not necessary for a municipality to amend its zoning ordinance in order to approve rezonings under the procedures specified in the Acts. However, an appropriate amendment may be helpful, so as to make clear that, in the proper circumstances, the municipality may approve a rezoning upon specified conditions that are not otherwise referred to in the zoning ordinance. The new Acts, if carefully complied with, will enable municipalities to consider and approve rezoning applications upon terms and conditions involving greater flexibility and with a view toward including conditions that will help to avoid potentially adverse land use impacts, in those cases where such conditions are offered by a zoning applicant.” One land use law firm in Michigan described the new laws this waY: “This latest legislation is changing the face of zoning as we have known it. Over-riding the community plan is now easier than before. Communities need to be alert and may need to establish procedures and amendments to maintain the integrity of districts by amending the ordinance and plan to ensure a reasonable approach to conditions. The new contract law was the legislators’ idea of a quick fix, the implementation of which may cause more problems than the intended fix.” Along with this contract zoning law, the state also passed a “streamlined platting” law, which enables developers to present a preliminary plat to all approving bodies at an informal meeting before creating final plans — something that has never been done before. The measure also allows for simultaneous approval of the final plat by all authorizing bodies. Currently, this approval occurs in individual steps with each regulatory body operating on its own timeline. The new process reduces the time significantly, helping developers move faster, and get more of a jump on local citizen’s groups.
These anti-community land use laws in Michigan were passed under the phony invocation of smart growth. The Michigan Association of Realtors could not hide their glee over the new laws. ” This potentially could be the most significant thing we’ve done in land use in the past 30 years,” said an MAR official. “Smart growth projects, which typically involve rezoning, were too politically charged to be discussed at every level; because of this we weren’t able to have a dialogue with local government. These measures could possibly open the door for some incredibly significant land use opportunities.” The MAR sold this law on the grounds that it would promote “smart growth…better and smarter designs.” But this “major victory” is really a form of “Out- Smart” growth — it allows developers to out-smart opponents who are trying to stop inappropriate rezonings of land. These new laws give developers greater flexibility in pulling one piece of land out of context and rezoning it for large scale retail, for example. This “rezoning contract” concept was pushed by the Michigan Townships Association, Michigan Home Builders Association, and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, among others. One of the bills sponsors, Rep.. Chris Ward (R-Brighton) said the new zoning practices would enable local municipalities and property owners to rezone a parcel subject to explicit conditions to maintain high quality standards during redevelopment. Ward said the laws would “give local governments more flexibility in their planning to help promote wise land use and land preservation.” But the Michigan Association of Home Builders was more blunt in their description of the laws’ impact: “We all want to see good land use practices in Michigan and it’s just a matter of how you define that. Contract zoning allows the flexibility for development, while protecting private property rights.” Exactly: “good land use” to a developer means the ability to rezone any parcel quickly. That’s why property rights groups will love Michigan’s new “out-smart growth” laws.